SOUTH ST. PAUL (AP) -- Two state employee unions moved closer Monday to their second strike in two years by rejecting contract offers from Gov. Tim Pawlenty's administration.
The votes don't immediately send the unions' combined 27,000 strike-eligible members to the picket lines. But it gives them the ability to walk out if new talks don't lead to a settlement.
Neither union has set a strike date. By law, the unions must give 10 days notice before a strike. The two unions, which represent more than half of the state's work force, staged a two-week walkout in 2001.
"We are prepared to strike if we need to, but our first goal is to see if we can try to get the state back to the table and discuss this," said Peter Benner, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Jim Monroe, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees, made a similar statement.
They said the sides are about $75 million apart.
Cal Ludeman, Pawlenty's commissioner of employee relations, said he wants to resume negotiations this week. He said the state needs to have deals in place by mid-October to avoid millions of dollars in extra administrative costs on the new health plans it hopes to implement.
"We think this is an invitation for us to talk and we're willing to do so for the next several days," he said.
Leaders of AFSCME, the larger of the two unions, said 80 percent of their members who voted turned back the administration's offer; 66 percent of MAPE's voted against the proposal. They didn't release actual tallies.
Both unions were upset that the proposals contained no across-the-board pay increases over the next two years and shifted more insurance and medical care costs to workers, especially those with family coverage.
One AFSCME member, 911 dispatcher Kim Mueller, said she was looking at a $400 per-month increase in medical and dental costs for herself and four children. A single mother, Mueller said she wouldn't be able to make her bills on a $38,000 a year salary.
"It's simply wrong to make me choose between feeding my children and providing health care for them," she said.
AFSCME represents more than 18,000 employees -- secretaries, mechanics, snow plow drivers and many other blue-collar workers -- who make an average annual salary of $35,000. AFSCME-covered prison guards are prohibited by law from going on strike and are negotiating separately.
MAPE's 10,000-plus members, many of whom hold technical, accounting and program management jobs, have an average pay of roughly $50,000.
Pawlenty's negotiators have said the offers were the best available in an unfavorable budget climate. Wrestling with a $4.2 billion projected deficit and unwilling to raise taxes, the Legislature didn't set aside any new money for pay and benefits.
Even with the insurance revisions, the Department of Employee Relations contends that the state's share of health costs for AFSCME and MAPE members and dependents would run $44.2 million more for the next two years than it was in 2002-03. Without any changes, the additional state cost for their coverage would be $73.3 million.
Some employees who get satisfactory performance reviews and who are below top-scale for their positions would be eligible for so-called step increases. The state said about half of AFSCME's members and 70 percent of MAPE's would qualify.
Ludeman said the current proposals would cause hundreds of layoffs to a work force that has seen about 1,000 since the beginning of the year. For each $1 million the state adds to the pot, he said 17 more workers could be trimmed.
Pawlenty, on a trade trip to Canada, issued a statement calling the votes "certainly disappointing, but clear."
He continued to defend the state's offer as "not only competitive but better than many areas of the private sector and consistent with the times in which we live."
Pawlenty's administration has begun preparing for a strike. For example, the governor activated the National Guard to train for work in nursing homes and other care centers, just like they did during the 2001 strike.
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